The Facts

  • Not the biggest environmental issue facing your family
  • It’s cheaper to use reusables over 2.5 years of wearing them
  • Waste is the biggest issue associated with disposables
  • Reusables are not good in water stressed areas
  • Chemical use is a common issue with all nappy formats
  • Potentially no climate win using one type over another

Expert voices

For one child, over two and a half years, the impacts are roughly comparable with driving a car between 1,300 and 2,200 miles in the UK.
Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies, UK Environment Agency
Home-washed reusable nappies washed in cold water… and line-dried were found to use less energy and land resources.
Kate O’Brien, Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, The University of Queensland, Brisbane
For the three nappy systems studied… no system clearly had a better or worse environmental performance.
Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies, UK Environment Agency
While it might seem clear-cut that reusable cloth nappies would be a more environmentally friendly… environmental costs are associated with using both.
Nappies, Toilet Training and Bathing, Australia Consumer's Association
The environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered.
Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies, UK Environment Agency

The issues

Choosing what nappy system you want to buy into is probably one of the most divisive and polarising issues of becoming a new parent. Despite the noise around this topic, it doesn’t really matter from an environmental perspective if you decide to use disposable or reusable nappies as they each have their own impacts and opportunities. Beyond the arguments and debates the reality is that this decision will not make that big of a difference to the footprint of your new family compared to the rest of your life, but using reusable nappies will save you a lot of money.

The key issues that come up around the impacts of nappies are:

1) Waste – There is much more waste associated with using a disposable nappy. Any way you look at it, even with new recycling technologies and home composting options, disposables carry a waste burden. However, since nappies make up between 2 – 4% of all waste generated in the UK and USA, eliminating this is actually quite a small change. However, if waste is your primary concern, then reusables present the best option.

2) Carbon Footprint – There is potentially a big difference between using disposable and reusable nappies depending on one’s washing regime. Washing on cold temperatures and line drying outdoors can save up to 40% of the carbon footprint compared to disposables. On the other hand, washing on high temperatures (e.g. 90c) and tumble drying can swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and your impact can be almost double that of using disposables. For the average family using standard washing behaviours (i.e. line drying sometimes, washing at higher temperatures sometimes), the carbon footprint is almost the same for both disposables and reusables. As with waste, the total carbon footprint associated with nappies over the course of the average 2.5 years children are within them is quite small compared to the average household footprint. The total footprint for 2.5 years of nappying is between 400 – 800 kgCO2e per child, which is roughly equivalent to taking the baby on one return overseas flight or a few tanks of petrol for an average car.

3) Using resources – A disposable nappy regime needs significantly more resources to be produced in order to satisfy the needs of 2.5 years of nappy wearing, however the situation isn’t black and white. There are several companies that now produce entirely renewable and degradable nappies from natural materials, meaning the resource use can potentially be mitigated by paying for environmentally friendly formats. On the other side of the coin, cotton and (potentially) plastic production for reusables carry their own impacts, but these too can be controlled by buying from responsible companies.

4) Toxic releases – As with the other issues, this depends. Your impacts can either be through sending faecal matter to waste away in landfill (which you are not supposed to do!) or it can be through the detergents and washing agents you flush through the washing machine, both formats have their impacts and both have ways to reduce these.

Where is the carbon? (disposables)

0%
What they’re made of
0%
How they’re made
0%
What you do
0%
Getting rid of them

Where is the carbon? (reusables)

0%
What they’re made of
0%
How they’re made
0%
What you do
0%
Getting rid of them

Buying environmentally friendly

Disposables
  • FSC certification showing that the wood pulp comes from sustainably managed forestry
  • Renewable cover materials (e.g. plant-based plastics)
  • ISO 14001 certified manufacturing facilities, ideally powered by renewable energy
  • Chlorine free
  • Perfume, fragrance, and moisturiser free
  • Latex free
  • Unfortunately most of the brands that produce nappies that tick most of the ‘good buying’ criteria are European. Although you can import the brands below to North America and Asia, it is unfortunate that the “eco brands” there are mostly green wash with the primary focus not being on the sustainable production of the nappies.

    Below are some of the brands that tick most of environmental boxes to be the best performing, and lowest impact, disposables. I have experience using both and they have exceptional performance and are comparable, if not better than, leading brands:

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Reusables
  • Second hand
  • Organic cotton or bamboo
  • Fair trade materials and production process
  • Two-piece system for faster/easier cleaning and drying
  • Quick drying material (e.g. microfibre)
  • Wash at home (i.e. don’t use a cleaning services)

There are many small-scale producers that make reusable nappies in their home leaving a potentially endless selection of potential brands to buy. The challenge with selecting a brand is that many times the actual environmental credentials are hidden or absent on websites that spend all of their time debasing disposables rather than discussing their own performance. The list below is non-exhaustive and covers just a few of the good brands that are available based upon the published statements regarding materials and supply chains (no comments on performance!):

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Nitty Gritty

There is extensive literature and research available on the complete environmental impacts of using nappies. For more than 15 years governments, NGOs, manufacturers and academics have reviewed the evidence from multiple viewpoints for countries around the world.

The sections on the right describe the evidence and resources that are available for learning more about the impacts of nappies and your opportunities to have a light footprint with your baby.

Approximately 4% of UK landfill waste is due to disposable nappies (WRAP 2013). The two primary parts of a disposable nappy are wood pulp and plastic. The good news is that both of these can potentially come from renewable sources – if you pay a bit more for it – as you can have certified sustainable forests (e.g. FSC) and bio-based plastics (e.g. from sugar, corn, animal fat). There is still an impact in using these materials, and some debate about them being the complete solution, but this will reduce the net environmental drain quite a lot.

Reusable nappies can be made from a range of different materials and have their own impacts, the key one being cotton production. Cotton is used as the absorbent material in almost all reusable nappies and conventional growing methods use a high volume of fertilisers, pesticides and water. The combination of these two things affects not just the environment, but the people who grow the cotton as well. Fear not, as organic cotton is definitely better on both of these fronts and is readily available.

Disposable nappies are typically produced in normal manufacturing settings. This carries with it the typical woes of having good equipment, energy efficiency measures and happy working conditions addressed in order to have a smaller impact. Making up approximately 20% of the carbon footprint, this is a significant impact area and pressure on manufactures to improve practices can make a difference… as can buying from a responsible brand to begin with.

Reusables are effectively textiles and therefore their impacts can range from poor working conditions in factories through to small ‘one mum’ operations. Going with a small-scale brand is the best way to mitigate against the potential for them being made in a sweatshop (e.g. Rana Plaza).

With both reusables and disposables the ultimate impact of a nappy is in your hands. Water use per wash can vary significantly on due to what washing machine you have and how you work it. Typically, a washing machine on standard wash routine will use about 60 – 100 litres of water. If you do one wash every two days (~12 nappies) then that is (conservatively) 9,360 litres of water needed each year just to wash nappies. Compared to disposables, that is almost 500x more water needed for reusables than disposables.
There aren’t very many concrete statistics available on exactly how many disposable nappies end up in landfill. The most commonly cited figure is between 3 – 4%, but this traces back to a study from the Nappy Alliance estimate in 2008. This estimate has been quoted in Parliament and is about double US waste statistics.

It is now possible to recycle disposable nappies in the UK, but this is not yet widespread. and less than 1% of disposables are actually recycled. An environmental impact lifecycle assessment (LCA) commissioned by the recycler – Knowaste – claims to provide a 71% disposal impact reduction compared to landfill and incineration. While this is likely accurate, the carbon emissions of the disposal of these products is quite small so the benefit is nothing really to shout about. The big saving is that it is actually recycled instead of left to decompose (or not) in landfill.

Reusable nappies also have waste considerations, however these will often vary based on the type of material being used (e.g. plastic outers v full cotton). If they are plastic then it is likely they will end up in landfill themselves. The big advantage with reusables is in the name: reuse. Using reusables with multiple children is the best option… but you may need to get some needlework together to replace latch mechanisms if they start to wear.

Regardless of what nappy you use, disposing of solids down the toilet ensures that faecal matter is treated properly.

APHA (1989) Health and Environmental Hazards of Disposable Diapers
Amonier, S et al. (2005) Life cycle assessment of disposable and reusable nappies in the UK, UK Environment Agency
Amonier, S et al. (2008) An updated life cycle assessment study of disposable and reusable nappies, UK Environment Agency
Buchs, M et al. (2011) UK households’ carbon footprint: A comparison of the association between household characteristics and emissions from home energy, transport and other goods and service, Working Paper A13/01, University of Southampton
Climatop (2011) CO2 Balance: babydream – diaper
Defra (2013) Estimates for nappy recycling, House of Commons Hansard Ministerial Statements for 16 Apr 2013
Deloitte (2011) Absorbent hygiene products comparative life cycle assessment, Knowaste
Edana (2005) Sustainability report: baby diapers and incontinence products
EPA Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the United States: Facts and Figures
O’Brien, K et al. (2009) Life Cycle Assessment: Reusable and Disposable Nappies in Australia, Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, The University of Queensland, Brisbane
Weisbrod, A and Van Hoof, G (2011) LCA-measured environmental improvements in Pampers diapers, International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
WRAP (2013) Nappies: hotspots, opportunities and initiatives

Recent thoughts

Defending reusable nappies

June 22nd, 2014|0 Comments

Today I saw a post in the Observer that sought to answer a rather simple […]

What is the real impact of using nappies?

December 14th, 2013|7 Comments

Comparison of the carbon footprint of using disposable and reusable nappies.